Tangible Ghosts

By Gussow, Mel | American Theatre, December 1993 | Go to article overview
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Tangible Ghosts

Gussow, Mel, American Theatre

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON: "An open drain," "unutterably offensive," "repulsive and degrading," "garbage and offal" these were typical of the critics' comments on Ibsen's Ghosts when it opened in London in 1891. William Archer, one of the playwright's most fervent admirers (and his translator) collated the horrendous reviews and called them a "shriek of execration." In these more liberated times, it may be difficult to understand the outrage that greeted Ghosts then and in subsequent productions. Jesse Helms's attack on the American avant-garde is tepid in comparison.

As for those like Archer who thought of the play as a great moral drama, they were linked in the local press as "lovers of prurience" and "muck-ferreting dogs," a graphic way of saying pshaw to Shaw, among others. As Archer has said about the Norwegian dramatist on a previous occasion, "Alas, poor Ibsen! It is well that he does not read English."

Misunderstanding of Ibsen came in the highest places. At a state dinner in which the playwright was the guest of honor, the King of Norway admonished him for writing Ghosts and instead praised one of his earlier minor plays. Ibsen could only respond, "I had to write Ghosts."

It would be gratifying to say that the play was now universally recognized as one of the author's most valuable works. Instead, some would argue that it is dated or that its residual power remains in the reading of the text. All such thoughts are banished by the current Royal Shakespeare Company production running through January at Stratford-upon-Avon, as staged by Katie Mitchell. At 28, she is one of a wave of talented young English directors (whose numbers also include Deborah Warner and Sam Mendes).

The necessity of Ghosts suffuses every aspect of Mitchell's version, which is as close to a perfect production as one could imagine. In her hands, the play is an emotionally shattering experience as relevant as any modern work about the ravages of AIDS. The subject is not unrelated, as young Oswald Alving is devastated by syphilis and other symbolic sins of his dissolute father. Above all, Ibsen explored the tragedy of a devotion to dead ideals and outmoded beliefs, as represented by Oswald's mother, who is the reverse of Ibsen's Nora. Trapped in a poisonous domestic environment, she chooses hypocrisy over freedom. She slams no doors but stays on in order to preserve the facade of a debilitating marriage.

Mitchell's production skillfully focuses on Mrs. Alving's struggle to whitewash her husband's name. In so doing, she eventually realizes the damage she has caused to her husband as well as to her son and herself. Oswald and Pastor Manders, the well intentioned but wrongheaded family adviser, are important as reflections of Mrs. Alving's self-deception, In reviewing the last Broadway mounting of Ghosts, a 1982 production starring Liv Ullmann, I said that we rarely felt the intensity and the metaphorical mist of unforgiving memory that pervades this blighted Nordic household. That is precisely what Mitchell and her actors convey at Stratford's intimate Other Place.

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